The true wisdom of sarbat da bhala

Charanjeet Singh Minhas

IT was the Saturday after. The first Shabbat service in the aftermath of the Pittsburgh tragedy was about to begin. A friend and I entered the local synagogue in Newark, Delaware. Rabbi Jacob Lieberman, a short, handsome man, stepped off the dais to welcome us. After returning to the lectern, his hands rose repeatedly to his face. Then he left. I noticed other congregants looking at us with kindness. He reentered after a couple of minutes and looked at us all. He was still crying.

Growing up in Punjab and working in India, the US to me, and like others, was a land of opportunities. No wonder, then, that an Army havaldar’s son could think of starting a software company immediately after landing there in 1999.

It has been especially painful to witness the hatred expressed by a tiny, but lethal, group of individuals in this country. Six years ago, it struck a gurdwara in Oak Creek. Recently, a synagogue in Pittsburgh. In between, a black church in Charleston. All three tragedies were perpetrated by lone white supremacists; all three at places of God; all three at an interval of three years. And then, there were additional tragedies in schools across the country, the concert in Las Vegas, the nightclub in Florida….

My friend and I were at Temple Beth El to express our solidarity. The sinking feeling I had after hearing about the Oak Creek shooting is still fresh with me. I was in Bengaluru that day, visiting my India operations with my family. My wife and I were worried about our son. He was then, and even today, the lone Sikh boy with long hair to ever attend his private school in its century-old history.

He has private violin lessons in a neighbourhood we know from the many Passovers we have enjoyed there. That day, I dropped him and went to the gym, where I learned of the Pittsburgh shooting. It triggered that familiar sinking feeling. I thought of my Jewish friends and their pain. The next day I joined hundreds gathered at a vigil in Newark. Addressing the gathering, including representatives of many faiths, Rabbi Lieberman said: ‘For our grief, this is an opportunity to mourn. For our outrage, it’s a time to cry out. For our fear, an opportunity to pray and to invite courage, and for our vulnerability, it’s a time to stand with others and to discover that we are not really alone.’

Later, a couple of Sikhs questioned me for going to the Shabbat service, just as many Sikhs and others ask me every year why I host Iftar dinner during Ramadan. Yet some others question my celebrating Christmas, Diwali, Lohri, Holi, Passover and other festivals.

‘Why not?’ I ask.

‘You are a Sikh.’ I am told.

‘Precisely. I only feel like a Sikh when I am doing this, because my Nanak’s blessing of sarbat da bhala hugs me warmly and blissfully only during such moments.’

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